Amphibious Trilogies

Movements. Island and pond

Field Notes, Apr 26 2017
10 min spontaneous writing

Recently,  I have traveled to Vardø to follow up on the culmination seminar of the Future North project (AHO) and the Vardø Restored project. Shortly after  I traveled to  Lillehammer with MA students of choreography from KHiO, namely Kyuja Bae, Thomas Presto, Katarina Skar Lisa and Otto Ramstad. This is a three-week residential workshop called Amphibious Moves. Choreographies of littoral landscape. The workshop is based on the ‘Pond’ thematic, hosted by Prof. Hans-Jørgen Wallin Weihe (Inland University College) and the Maihaugen Open Air Museum. And by a trick of the tale we made a connection to Vegar Landsverk, a Bachelor student of the Norwegian Film School based in Lillehammer. In the middle of the workshop I got a bad cold. I tried to work with it, but eventually took time off in the weekend, traveling back to Nesset, close to Oslo. I am writing this text from my cabin in Nesset, covered by blankets, looking out over Bunnefjord.

In Vardø I lived in my host’s family apartment, paying for basic expenses. In Lillehammer we all stayed in Hans-Jørgen’s house for free (myself , 4 students and research fellow Brynjar Åbel Bandlien). All are generous. All do as well as they can. Different circumstances. Different localities. Different personalities. Different challenges. Conflicts of understanding to be breached beyond cold critical views.

I am thinking about artistic research and I do seek to bring students into artistic research practices. The mandate says that we should use research in our teaching. What ‘research’ does this pertain to?

I have a small budget. I have to decide where, how and who to take with me – sharing resources across thresholds of economy in accordance with local situations. I try to apportion out the available funds (in a kind fuzzy logical way) to get the most out of encounters when working with fieldwork in littoral landscapes.

In artistic research in Norway there is a push towards an international standing (dissemination – presentations). Yet my experience of working in various littoral landscapes in Norway (and in other countries too) I learn about relationships between the land and sea that contest the given borderlines, founded from both current and historical perspectives. Movements. What I am trying to say is that we humans are mixed bunch. For example, working as a volunteer in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Samos in 2017 I have met many people from different countries, their plight, their hopes and dreams. Holding on to a social importance. Connecting in the doing and sharing, beyond the given national/political territories. The students I am working with now have entered Norway from the US of A with ancestors in Norway, from routes in Korea and Trinidad, and one who is discovering her Sami ancestors. Then there is Vardø – arctic island- with strong connections with Russia, Finland +++.

This post is a 10 minute spontaneous writing.  There are many issues to attend to. I am trying to understand. To cut a long story short, I do think that the focus on international outstanding (pertaining to institutions) within artistic research on today is a misdemeanour – a wild herring? And yet it is so very inspiring, challenging.

Right now I am on my cabin 27 km from Oslo by road. I look over the water of the fjord, now fluid, not frozen as I left it. Not so dramatic when on Hornøya  in Vardø when the birds migrate from the antarctic to the arctic. Because the spring came lately many birds had trouble to make a nest. Many sort out alternative places to raise their young. That was once two weeks ago. Really, I would like to stop here. Really I would like to migrate to my boat on Hovedøya, just 5 min by ferry to mainland Oslo. Right now I am content to look out over the fjord. To see the spring bloom with flowers, buds and the birds. I can be here calmly. – On Monday the work starts again in Lillehammer, some 4 hours by bus and train. I will be living in a house that houses many books in shelves and crannies that I would like to read.

No time. Some time. I land in my cabin. My bed. Mirror boat mirror. Mirror cabin. I am logging off now.

Photo attribution: Amanda Steggell

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Dark Islands

AMPHIBIOUS MOVEMENTS –TECHNIQUES OF THE UNCANNY IN VARDØ
2 April 2018.

Here I am. The snow lays heavily on the ground. It’s rather chilly. I am standing outside the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA) Vessel Traffic Centre (VTC) in Vardø. VTC shares a home with the Directory of Fisheries and the recently added analysis unit. Each unit has specific responsibility areas. Together, the main task is to analyse available information of vessel activities and movements, and to detect unregulated transport of goods and unregulated fishing. By means of radar monitoring, ship reporting and Automatic Identification System (AIS), they cover a vast stretch of water; from the coastlines of Troms and Finnmark, to nearby Russia and further away islands of Jan Mayen and Svalbard.

Behind me stands a redundant Arctic Ocean observation buoy for realtime logging and transferring of environmental data. Eye catching, resembling a classic UFO. The buoy, called Wavescan, is particularly amphibious, rigged to gather oceanographic, meteorological (metocean) and water quality data. Wavescan runs on solar power, GPS positioning and two-way communication. It is able to function in very extreme environmental conditions, such as in very deep water, strong currents, high winds and in remote locations. About a year ago the buoy was one of several floating nodes of a national research project. As I understand, the main goal of the project was to make a tool to monitor and map the motion of the ocean from different positions around Norway’s northern coastlines. The results of the research contribute to anticipate and warn ships of potential dangers at sea. I asked the VTC staff if the buoy would be able to work today. The answer was ‘probably’, but the battery would need to be replaced.

In the background are the Globus 1 and 2 Satellite Stations administered by the Norwegian Intelligence Service(NIS). Close by, the Globe 3 Station is under construction – a joint project between NIS and the US Air Force Space Command. While the radar stations are outwardly highly visible, what goes on in the inside is highly secret, fortified by security fences surrounding the military site with staggered warning signs in English, Norwegian and Russian. ‘KEEP OUT”.

A statement given by The Norwegian intelligence service proclaimed that the tasks of the new radar will be to follow and categorize objects in space, monitor national interest areas in the north, as well as collect data for national use for research and development. To expand on this comment, the new base station would have the same function of the Globus 2, only better. However, in a storm the covering of the antenna was blown away, exposing the orientation of the radar dish. It was rather embarrassing, pointing directly towards Russia.

To be clear ‘Vardø’ is both the name of a town and the administrative centre for the wider Vardø Municipality in Finnmark, Norway. The town lies on a small island called Vardøya, near the mouth of the Varangerfjord, on the edge of the Barents Sea.

Vardø is the easternmost town of all the Nordic countries. Located at 31°E, it shares a meridian line with the Great Cheops Pyramid in Giza. To mark this a small non-invasive pyramid has been planted on the top of Reinøya, close to Vardøya, on the exact same altitude as the pyramid in Giza. Both Reinøya and its neighbouring island, Hornøya, are protected nature reserves. In the spring about 10.000 polar seabirds migrate from the south pole to make their nesting places on the steep cliffs. Thanks to the fabulous Biotope Architecture Bureau, flocks of bird enthusiasts come from all over the world to take part in this spring mating ritual. They bring with them their money; a source of income for a small island trying to survive through the thick and thin.

In conversations with island people, they say that Biotope has inspired a new approach to the bird life on Vardø. Something so habitually overlooked. Overlooked is the BBC series who were working on Hornøya when I visited the island. Something to appreciate and take joy in. They were filming puffins with a stealth camera installed in a kind of a robotic puppet Puffin. The Puffin puppet was programmed with several behavioural movements and smells, and with a stealth camera to record the violence of Puffins in the mating season. All that they left was their money for services rendered. What they did not acknowledge was that they were filming on the island – Hornøya. This I have found is symptomatic to Vardø. People come and go. Researchers like to come here, but they do not leave a footprint on Vardø once their studies are over.

In good times the rich waters of the Barents Sea provide ample food for the bird colonies. In recent times climate changes, fisheries, pollution and various other human and non-human activities have contributed to the decline of seabirds. Fishing and seafood processing still remains to be a main source of income of Vardø, despite the virtual collapse of the fishing industry in 2017. There is a saying of islanders, when the ocean thrives, the birds thrive, Vardø thrives. So called non-indigenous species ( ‘invasive species’) such as the King Crab do also thrive. They come in hordes are proficient eco-engineers eradicating the natural ecosystem of the sea bed, hey, they taste deliciously in the Vardø Hotel restaurant and in Vardø College where you can both purchase and eat such local delicacies for a smallish price. If you are lucky, then you can have an almost free meal from the fishers on the newly half-restored fishing processing plant.

I am inspired by this resilient community. I want to bring something back. At the time of writing I am thinking of a project where the buoy is put back into the sea. I would like to engage with the youths of Vardø and Kystverket to make visible/tangible the data that the buoy can produce.

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Pacific oysters on Hovedøya

To recap: I have been spending my time on Hovedøya in my boat for over 8 weeks. During this time I have been monitoring the Pacific oysters (C gigas). Until this summer I have never observed such oysters (or any other oysters) in the six year  period of living aboard a boat. My first observations of such oysters in July 2017 were scattered patches of oysters – some smallish, others looking more mature – about 25 of them on the edge of the stoney beach besides my boat.  Since then the water has been clouded by sporadic bouts of rain, high winds, higher temperatures causing green sheens of algae, all of which has hidden the underwater world.

Yesterday, at 7am, I did my practice of removing mainly glass and plastic debris coming onto the shore. The temperature had dropped, the water was clear. Clinging on to rocks,  about 10-30cm underwater, were a multitude of very small pacific oysters – about half the size of an infant’s little fingernail, unmistakable from other shell fish in shape and form.

Under my nose and through the green shroud of algae, the few oysters had been spawning larvae …. but how long does it take from spawning to become a ‘spat’ cemented down to rocks, glass and other shellfish?

Please do read the taxonomy, anatomy and life cycle of oysters  that this image is a part of. Then read the negative and positive impacts of such non-native oyster species..

In the meantime I will watch over the little oysters to see if I can fathom out how many will survive. There are too many to count. What I really need is a visual scanning system that can show growth and mortality ranges.

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Air waves over the water

Liminal territories – amphibious spaces

It was an uncanny moment when in April I watched a patrol boat off the coast of Samos island, Greece, and at the same time received a message from my network provider that welcomed me to Turkey.

Likewise, when looking across to Serbia over the Danube River from a hilltop at St. Helena, Banat, Romania in June.

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Beachcombing on Hovedøya

Since April I’ve been staying on my boat on Hovedøya, just one of the little islands in the inner Oslo fjord. Large parts of the island are protected by the Cultural Heritage Act. This is were I live in the summer season. I mostly stay on the island unless I really need to leave (for example, to buy provisions), even though the city is very close. Almost every day I clear up the stoney beach close to the jetty, finding all kinds of plastic, glass, syringes and a lot of other rubbish washed up on the shore. Today I found something quite alien and alive.

I have observed the urban development of Oslo Harbour from my boat for the last six summers and have found that this development has contributed exponentially to the amount of rubbish I gather each morning. ∼ Many people crowd onto the recently constructed city beaches to enjoy the sun and sea. When this happens many castaways, such as ice cream wrappers, chicken bones, tampons, condoms and doggy poo bags, come floating over to the little stoney beach. The ferries that go to the small islands depart from a more accessible location than before, greatly increasing the number of persons that visit the islands. In the high season I dream that Hovedøya is sinking under the weight of all the visitors.

This morning the water level was very low, exposing less contemporary objects in the mud; thick broken glass (cloudy coloured, dark brown, green and black) that must have come from very old bottles, pieces of old pottery and large iron nails from traditional wooden boats. I also found a scattering of Pacific oysters (natives of Japanese seas) anchoring themselves to the rocks. Never before have I found a wild oyster on Hovedøya.

Recently there has been a rapid expansion of  Pacific oyster (crassostrea gigas) populations on the Scandinavian coasts. The oysters have been referred to as ecosystem engineers; species that have the ability, directly or indirectly, to modify, create or destruct habitats.

Unlike the ‘native’ oysters of Norway, which are oval and rather flat in form, the shells have sharp edges and are shaped by the environment they inhabit. I found such oyster shells filling in the niches between rocks. In Apr 2016 I helped organise a seafood foraging course at Steilene, just a little further south from Oslo. The oysters we harvested were much larger than those on Hovedøya and more conformable in shape. I presume that the oysters on Hovedøya are young ones, first cementing themselves in the gaps between rocks before growing bigger. Given time, they may establish themselves as a large colony. Given the right conditions Pacific oysters can live up to about 30 years.

Foraged food on Steilene, Apr 2016.

Oyster on Hovedøya, Jul 2017

Much like the invasion of the Alaskan king crab some years back, the explosion of wild oysters along parts of the Norwegian coast are about to displace native species, and may also account for the very low count of mussels in Norway this year. The normally shy eider ducks that migrate to Hovedøya in the spring  must be feeling this recession too. Each day, family groups pay frequent visits to my boat, diving under the water to feed on mussels living on the keel. From inside the boat the collective noise they make is phenomenal, sounding like a sea monster trying to find a way in. I try to supplement their diet with bread crumbs, but they just they throw their beaks up in distain. Not surprising really, as they feed on mussels, clams, scallops, sea urchins, starfish, and crabs. Mussels are their favourite food. Oysters are mine.

If I had been given the option of oysters or bread, I would opt for oysters – breakfast, lunch and dinner (preferably with a slice of lemon and a glass of champagne). Gobbling them up seems a good way to go to restore some balance  in the local ecosystem. Others have been thinking about this too. I found an article in The New York Times; Chinese Offer to Eat Denmark’s Oyster Problem to Extinction (28.04.2017).

Briefly; soon after the Danish Embassy in Beijing released an online report about a ‘plague’ of Pacific oysters along parts of the Scandinavian coast, over 15.000 social media comments and recipes came flooding in.

Most of the advice offered by commenters boiled down to a simple solution: Send armies of Chinese tourists to scarf down the oysters. But that advice often came with a witty twist: “Free up visas and introduce oyster-eater visas, 10 years unlimited re-entry,” said one of the initial suggestions. “I’d bet that these oysters would be exterminated in about five years.”

Another comment;

“I solemnly swear to join the Danish Oyster-Resistance Volunteer Army,” said another. “I will dedicate my tongue and taste buds to Sino-Danish friendship until these oyster invaders are vanquished.”

To such comments, the Embassy replied;

“Thank you to the righteous advance team of oyster eaters,” …. “The beaches of Denmark await you.”

Like the king crab, Pacific oysters may become a lucrative export product, but whether this will have a positive effect on local ecosystems remains to be seen. A recent article, DNA analyses reveal secrets about the Pacific oyster (NIVA 28.06.2017) probes this issue. It is one of global climate change, larvae drifts, simulated ocean models and genetic analyses.

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Grimm notes, Banat, Romania

Amanda Steggell and Hans-Jørgen Wallin Weihe travelled by plane from Oslo, while I travelled from Berlin to Vienna. We all took a bus from Vienna to Brno. From Brno we travelled with another bus for twelve hours during the night through Hungary and Romania to Sfinta Elena by the River Danube in the most southwestern region of Romania on the border of Serbia. This region is called Banat.

Banat is like an island/pond of Czech culture in Romania, which again is an island/pond of Latin culture in the general Slavic culture of the Balcanic region. I am a bit sceptical to any identity or autonomy based on claiming rights and ownership to a piece of land, no matter which culture developed or arrived there first. It is this kind of territorial behaviour that, next to religion and economic interests in the exploiting of riches of the land, has been the cause of so many wars in this region. However, the Czech minority is minor compared to that of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, not to mention the minority of Roma people living all over Romania. These minorities have all been existing in Romania for centuries.

The long trip could have been shortened by a day if we had flown directly to Bucharest and then caught a train to Banat. If we had chosen this route we wouldn’t have got the same sense of distance and time (travel time). Somehow this pilgrimage seemed like the right way to arrive in this forgotten place where time has stood still since 1830. We were traveling together with our tour guide Pavel Klvac and 20 Czech tourists from Brno and the little village of Drnovice, some 80km westwards from Brno. We were not the only artists in the group. There was a delegation of painters with their canvases and easels coming to Banat to eternalize the picturesque landscapes of grass covered hills. – We came there to walk through them. On the first full day of our trip we were going to hike from one village further up the Danube Valley and back to Sfinta Elena.

The hike:

Amanda, Hans-Jørgen and I decided to leave the group and head off on our own. We had only a rough map of the area, some apples and some water. It started to rain and we got lost almost immediately. We couldn’t agree if we wanted to return to the starting point or to continue to search our way back home using the map and the compass on our iPhones. Amanda suggested to ask directions from the first person we would meet.

We continued walking and met upon a farm at the edge of the forest. The first ones to greet us was a pack of dogs that were very aggressive. The farmer calmed them down and smiled friendly to us. His family, hiding in the doorway behind him seemed less open. Since I lived in Bucharest for five years and speak Romanian, I functioned as a translator. The farmer pointed out the right direction and told us that it would take two and a half hours to reach Sfinta Elena by foot. Our spirits lifted after we had been given the right directions, and we were appreciating the unique beauty of the wild Romanian forest, which reminded us of something out of a Grimm brothers fairy tale.

After another one and half hour walk along a stream we meet a construction worker who offered us a ride in his car down to the Danube river. We declined his offer, and instead asked him for direction. He pointed it out and said that Sfinta Elena would be about two and a half hours away. The sense of distance and time seemed a bit random in these parts of the world, so we didn’t let our good mood get affected by this. We just kept walking. This time through the thick forest on an old timber road.

After a while the road ended in the middle of nowhere. We tried several different routes, but ended up taking another more recently built and very steep uphill timber road. At the top of this hill there was another farm. No dogs were greeting us, so we thought that the farm was abandoned. When we got closer an old lady, with several dogs around her that were completely silent, greeted us. She asked us if there were more to our company, but I replied that we were on our way to Sfinta Elena, and that ‘no’, we were the only ones. She pointed out the direction and told us it would take us another two and a half hours to get there. Later we were told that there are witches still living in this area.

We met a man that looked like a monster accompanied by his beautiful daughter, an old man eating his dinner who shouted to us from his balcony and then,  a woman who spoke a bit of English. She told us that her daughter was an English Professor. Everyone told us that Sfinta Elena was two and a half hours away. When we finally walked up the last timber road to the top of the last forest hill and could see the windmills surrounding Sfinta Elena, we nearly cried in relief. It was still a bit to go, but at least we knew we were going to make it back that evening. We continued walking among the windmills and the flower fields until the sun set. We had been on this hike for 12 hours.

Much in the same way ´If I were The Ocean´ () can be used as a map and a compass for the entire Amphibious Trilogies project, I think that our hike in the Banat region can be used as a map and compass to how the coming collaborations between Amanda, Hans-Jørgen and myself will be. Through collaboration, respect and trust we negotiated and navigated our way through the thick forest together, and individually we keep our mood and our strengths up so that we could continue the trip without interruption. We let go of individual needs in order to reach the overall goal. We all showed our best sides. It was great to experience this. (comic strip documentation ⇒)

The dance:

The day after the long hike, Amanda and I decided to leave the group and stay in Sfinta Elena to rest and work. We walked back up on the hills where we had arrived the evening before and found a spot in the shadow of one of the windmills. There we practiced the dance of Tai Chi Tai Chi. I was wearing the GoPro-camera on my chest and documented the landscape with the movement of the dance just like I had done on the island of Fourni in Greece the year before. The recording looks very poetic with the sound of the windmills going whoop-whoop.

On the last day of our three-day stay we travelled with a boat to an island in the river Danube, which is a shared territory between Romania and Serbia. There we repeated the practice of the Tai Chi Tai Chi dance together with Hans-Jørgen. With a GoPro-camera attached to my chest I documented the frog pond that was there on the island, the boats passing on the Danube and the mountains on both sides of the river. If I remember correctly, the recordings became very picturesque with the sound of the frogs and the crickets in the background.

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Banat and St. Helena in Rumania

Banat and St. Helena in Rumania – notes on islands of otherness in the sea of nationalism

In the sub-Carpathian mountain chain along the Donau river there are pockets or rather ponds of populations of Czech populations established from the 1820s as border settlements along the borders of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Most of them have historically been rather isolated being culturally and linguistic apart from the Romanian population.

The Czech, Slovak and earlier also German settlements were mostly Roman Catholics or protestants a different faith than the dominating Orthodox Rumanian or on the other side of the river Donau Orthodox Serbian.

Travelling from Vienna (Wien) to Brno (Brünn) and by road south to Banat is a long drive, still we follow the ancient route and we come like most visitors and participate in traveling the traditional way of culture and language. We travel with Czechs, some of them visiting relatives, others just visiting being artists, tourists and scholars.  A drive through the night – a long control of passports on the Rumanian border to Hungary. The two countries being ambivalent to each other. Hungary claiming parts of northern Rumania having Hungarian nationals – the Hungarians in those regions want to be part of Hungary.

St. Helena is like moving back a century. People live traditional lives – tending their fields, milking their cows and sheep, having a few pigs, hens and growing traditional crops. The fields are small and life is hard-work and dedication to the land of the ancestors. People are hospitable, used to sharing and serving meals made from what they have from their gardens and farms. Food of a quality and sharing of a quality that is highly appreciated by us coming as visitors. We live in the home of an old couple, they prepare meals and share their warmth across language differences. Brynjar speaks Rumanian, which helps. Yet still, locals speak mostly Czech living in a world apart from Rumania. Many have been to the Czech Republic, but never to the big centres of Rumania.

We walk from one Czech settlement to another, we lost our way somewhere along the trail. Walking through the forests we come to another world of isolated Rumanian farms with no electricity living in a world of their own with their animals – pigs, dogs, hens, cows and horses. Always sharing and giving us directions to our destination – the Czech village in a distance somewhere down the trial – some hours on- the next place, the same answer – some hours on – the next place – the same answer – some hours on – just a short distance – enormous pigs – ancient wells dug by someone a long time ago – we see rare orchids, beautiful flowers, toads, frogs and a single snake. We never saw the bears and wolves, but we are sure they saw us.

“In the forest there are witches” we were told when we returned. We met an old and very helpful lady living alone far away from others. She sure did bewitched us by her personality and helpfulness. We met a young lady herding a cow with her father, some young children hiding in a doorway and middle-aged female giving us water from her well and showing us the way towards St. Helena. She lives across a valley from the Czech settlements, but there were no trails to walk. Most of the way just forest and a small stream.

In St. Helena they do not know their Rumanian nieghbors in the next settlement and neither do they know them. They are a world apart, still very close as the crows fly and as the deer run.

Big wind turbines up in the hills. Amanda and Brynjar danced by the turbines , following in the shadow of the huge propeller blades on the ground.

The Donau river includes big islands, at times of flood all covered by water – midway the Serbia – and as water flow and the river change the terrain with flooding the islands might change in shape and perhaps even nationality. A world of birds, butterflies, insects and fish. People living along the river are mostly Rumanians on the eastern side and mostly Serbians with pockets of Hungarians and Slovaks on the other side. Fishing, smuggling and subsistence farming along the river. During Communism, huge industries and mining operations that collapsed with the fall of Communism. Still, people remain – they have no choice and no alternatives – and the river Donau gives at least some possibilities. After all, there are fish and birds and the occasional job.

We all moved and filmed on an island in Donau, we were there and we were together – the few others were a Rumanian family taking a dip – we skinny dipped when alone – and we saw the tiny fish collecting in small backwater places, the frogs in a pond, swans and ducks

The return was the same – we drove through the night. Passport control on the border to Hungary – no refugees allowed in Hungary – a short time afterwards we took a toilet break at a gasoline station. On the road side by the stopping place there were young Asian ladies of the night smiling to the male passengers and ignoring the females. There are rules and they are practiced selectively – passport control is only for those poor and needy.

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Island field notes 2016-17

Island field notes 2016-17

Island field notes (and what gets let in and left out of the pond?)

FOURNI  ISLAND

‘If I were The Ocean’, the working exhibition, held at the Norwegian Maritime Museum at Bygdøy in August 2016, can be seen as a map and a compass for the entire Amphibious Trilogies project. Amanda Steggell and I used this map and compass at the isle of Fourni in September 2016.

Instead of circumnavigating the island, or climbing its highest peak, we navigated the northern shores of the island by walking as far as we could in every direction. When we found we couldn’t get any further by foot, we would enter into the water and swim to the next shore, and then continue to walk. This is the amphibious way of getting about. We also tried to find passages between different islands that were close enough to swim across. (⇐ ?)

Every morning Amanda would go out with the local fishermen to get the catch of the day. And every evening we would sit in the fish restaurant and eat what they had caught. This became another of our routines that gave a variation to the otherwise sleepy fisher village. One day there was a great deal of fish, octopus and lobster. Other days almost none.

Besides walking, swimming and fishing we would read, draw, do tai chi tai chi (⇐ ?), dance (⇐ ?), photograph, film, speak to locals, gather herbs and document the events as they unfolded. Amanda´s practice of enquiring could be considered to be of an enquiring journalistic approach.

In my opinion, the first trip to Fourni was a way of testing out all the different directions that Amphibious Trilogies can take in the coming three years.

SAMOS ISLAND I

In September of 2016, while staying at the island of Fourni Amanda and I visited the neighbouring island of Samos. We met the volunteering group Samos Volunteers who are working at a camp for boat refugees coming over the water from Turkey. We joined in for two days teaching English classes and gave swimming lessons for refugee kids at a shelter at the Paradise Hotel. The meeting with Jasmine Doust of the Samos Volunteers and encounter with the refugees sparked the idea to come back to Samos again in 2017 to work for a longer period of time. It also sparked the idea for a ‘pond ballet’, a colouring book and making plastic rope out of plastic bottles. More about this later.

SAMOS ISALND II

We arrived in Samos, Greece on 3 April 2017 and worked for Samos Volunteers daily from 6 am until at least 6 pm for 3 weeks (until 23 April) at the shelter at Paradise Hotel and in the refugee camp.

There were around 700-800 persons living in the camp at that time. Around 200 of them were children. Around 40 persons, mostly families with small children and/or pregnant women, were staying in the shelter. Every night there were between 20-30 new persons arriving to the island by boat from Turkey.

The everyday routine of activities consisted of working at the tea kitchen, library, English lessons, children’s activities, playing chess and backgammon, walking on hikes and arts and crafts; drawing and dancing workshops. During these activities there was no time to reflect upon the overall situation. We could only deal with each moment, one at a time, or else the graveness of the overall situation would make us unable to do any practical tasks at all.

Meeting with the refugees was very intense, direct and often resulted in laughter despite the harsh conditions, the lack of common language and many chances of misunderstanding.

The two events that Amanda and I were responsible for, the dancing and drawing workshops, didn´t not necessarily require words.

The grown-ups:

In the workshop for grown-ups every Tuesday and Thursday we facilitated a welcoming atmosphere in which the men would feel free to participate and start their own activities. We would be holding the space rather than activating it, so that the men could join in or bring their own activities to the space. An Algerian man spent several weeks painting a sign. A man from Kurdistan would bring his Udh to the classroom and play wedding songs. Then other men started to dance traditional wedding dances, and we joined them. A deaf man from Syria could easily join in dancing and drawing.

The kids:

The dance workshop for kids was held at the shelter at Paradise Hotel. There was not much explanation needed because the children would simply copy our actions. The workshop consisted of a warm-up circle where everybody got to suggest a movement and then everybody else copied them. We then moved as slow as we could, like we were moving in water, to some electronic music. Afterwards we did the Dance of the Evolution, starting as a one-cell-creature, going through all the different stages of development before ending in John Travolta-disco dance. We would end the workshop again in a circle with a breakdance movement called the wave. Everybody held hands and watch a wave move through body of one person at the time through the circle.

One kid that came over to Amanda and me during library and wanted to skip rope. After asking many times Amanda gave in and we started to make believe that we were swinging a rope. The kid saw that there was no rope, but still he started to jump. Everybody else around saw it and started to smile at the fact that the kid didn´t care if there was no rope there, but nevertheless jumped to 100. The smiles spread all around the main square of the camp. For Amanda and me this was the purest moment of belief in our whole stay at Samos and an example of how performance can create hope.

On our first visit to Samos in September 2016 we asked several people what the refugees needed the most. One man, a former refugee himself, answered that they need money and hope. When we asked Jasmine Doust of Samos Volunteers what was needed, she said that the kids love to colour, and that´s how the idea for the colouring book came. Amanda asked me if I could make one, and I drew five images. Two were of superheroes, refugee boy and refugee princess with whom the kids could identify. The other three were of a paper boat, a paper plane and a kite. The idea was that the drawings could be coloured and also images of objects that could physically be made simply by folding paper.

Together with the kids we folded paper planes and boats out of the blank pages in the book, but we didn’t get around to make kites. The idea behind the boat was to physically deal with their past of traversing the sea by boat, and by colouring it and folding it into a paper boat, also mentally deal with the fact that that’s how they got here. The planes were to symbolise their future; hopefully they would be allowed to fly to Athens or to another place in Europe.  The idea for the kite was that the kids could draw their past on one side of the kite, and their future on the other side, and that when they later would run with the kite on the beach it would give them the feeling that they were in charge of their own life.

On the cover of the colouring book there is a smiling frog under the big block letters saying REFUGEES WELCOME. The Refugees Welcome movement are very visible in the west, but is not very visible in the periphery of Europe. The idea to put an amphibian on the cover came from Amanda. When showing it to my cousin, Charlotte Bik Bandlien, she asked if the frog was meant to resemble Pepe the Frog of the Alt Right movement in the US of A. First then it became clear to me why putting a frog under those letters had resonated with me. Mixing the logos of the two political organisations that are the furthest apart in one drawing, and also the refugee children colour of it, it makes for a powerful action that produces a strong image of the present reality.

Every evening Amanda and I would debrief and recap. We would talk about the day, what had happened and how we felt about it. We would let down our guard and tell each other thing we liked and didn´t like, and we would allow ourselves to laugh about situations that were no fun at the time when they happened. This relief helped being in the tense atmosphere camp.

The Samos Volunteers:

Every Wednesday there was the volunteers’ weekly meeting at the Paradise Hotel where we would update one another on the events of the past week and discuss new issues. Meeting with the other volunteers was challenging in the sense that Samos Volunteers consist of persons of diverse backgrounds and from equally many different nationalities as the refugees in the camp. All of them arrived to Samos with the good intentions to help out, but there are many different ways to help out. We soon found out that there was an established hierarchy among the volunteers, which determined who got to help out, where and how.

This became clear on the second week when Hans-Jørgen Wallin Weihe, our collaborator, arrived. Since our visit in September the year before the volunteers had adapted a structure more similar to the one that we found between the police, the army and the other NGOs found inside the camp. Hans-Jørgen was only allowed to work with the refugees outside the camp. His wife and her sister were refused access when they approached the camp on their own. Hans-Jørgen, and ultimately Amanda and I, got to feel the tensions that this situation created. The encounter with the hierarchy of Samos Volunteers echoed a part of the project; what is allowed in and what gets left out of the pond? And who decides?

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Impressions of Samos

Being in Samos was an impression of the great contrast between then tourist Samos and the harsh world of the razor wired fenced in area of refugees. At the same time the reality of the volunteers with all their competencies and lack of competencies, personal hierarchy  and rivalries contrasted to the complexity of the refugee community 

– some of whom being real refugees – some coming from other reasons – the male dominance – the female group and the children – then the workers, some of them working as part of a condition for social welfare benefits – some professionals of various professions and some dedicated to their work with humanistic motives and some into the work because of the income.  

During my period – a week – the camp was open – however I experienced the camp as a trap – ready to be closed down whenever demanded. Guns and razor wire a reality that could be used  whenever external forces required them to be used.

 There are many games and actors some of them puppets in a puppet theatre – some of them with independence and willingness to act outside of the scene and the theatre. Then the children always ready to attach themselves to humans and individuals who can give them some kind of humanity and learning experiences. They were like seeds ready to germinate if conditions were right – and vulnerable to draught and lack of fertile sound.

 The camp was a pond with amphibious beings – ready to move on and develop – and just as ready to succumb all possibilities if draught and human pollution would come. Predator fish could make the pond a trap – predator birds could make the pond a trap – and humans could pollute and make it into a deadly place.

 Around the pond a beautiful landscape – recreation and humanity with an invisible wall to the other reality.

Ladies all covered up – still undressed and vulnerable. Men behaving like dominating men- still controlled and subordinated a system of individuals and bureaucracy – undressed and blind to their vulnerability – still very much aware of their situation – then everyone giving their censored selected truth through mobile telephones to another reality somewhere some other place.

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Post Paradise Blues

I got the Post Paradise blues.

Just got back to Oslo after 3 weeks staying at the Paradise Hotel working with volunteers with refugees on Samos Island. Now back I feel a need for some debriefing. Normalising? What does this mean/entail? I am listening to Grace Jones, her Island Life album.

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